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What America's Politicians Can Learn from an Unlikely Palestinian, Jewish Friendship

by Crystal Canney, published

Imagine a friendship between the wife of a fierce Israeli military commander and the mother-in-law of the founder of Fatah and the Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Impossible, it would seem. But such a friendship did exist.

The University of New England, with campuses in Maine and Tangier, Morocco, recently hosted an author who everyone should be reading if they care the least bit about human nature, world conflict, or geopolitics. Anthony David lectured on his book, An Improbable Friendship: Two Prominent Women, a Palestinian and a Jew, Join Hands to Fight for Peace.” It is relatively recent history that raises timely questions about the importance of understanding cultural context and ways to work together even among your most bitter enemies.

Moshe Dayan’s wife Ruth and Raymonda Tawil, the mother-in-law of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, were friends for 40 years. Dayan, of course, was present at the creation of Israel in 1948 and remained a central figure in the establishment of Israel as a democratic force in the Middle East until his death in 1981.

Imagine my surprise when I spoke to a journalist about this informative literary event only to be asked, "Who is Moshe Dayan?” After my somewhat sputtering review of the importance of 1948 to Israel and the world, the person said, “But that was so long ago.”

A failure not only to understand but also to respect historic events is at the very heart of what is going on in American politics and how the media covers it.

In 2013, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences produced a report to Congress, The Heart of the Matter, which looks at the importance of humanities in education:

“As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals we hold in common. The humanities remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going. Emphasizing critical perspective and imaginative response, the humanities— including the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts—foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and knowledge of all kinds."

Civil public discourse, national memory, knowledge of where we have been— are all qualities that are absent in both the execution and the coverage of the 2016 Presidential Race.

This week has been filled with news about Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. A Cruz campaign ad hits directly at Trump’s record on abortion. Is he “pro-choice” or “pro-life?” The ad clearly shows Donald Trump in a previous incarnation declaring his support for a woman’s right to choose. Trump doesn’t like the ad, and so has threatened to sue.

Instead of delving into the history of Trump’s record on abortion, media outlets have once again quickly deferred to the shiny object, the lawsuit that Trump has masterfully dangled.

The American presidential campaign -- no matter which side of the aisle you are on -- has hit a low point with every candidate catering to the angry voter. There is no civil discourse. There is no critical perspective or imaginative response. There is only anger, profanity, threats, counter-threats, and more anger.

Trump is the greatest offender. He also gets the most media coverage. The logical conclusion to be drawn by the Trump campaign is that his uncivil discourse is working. Media coverage of this campaign is a ridiculous parade of reports on who Trump swore at today. Here is Trump refusing to debate. Here is Trump standing next to a nonsensical, ranting Sarah Palin and, most recently, here is Trump slugging it out with Pope Francis.

These events continue to push the boundaries of what is truly news.

The New York Times' Nicolas Kristof gives voice to the anger so many Americans are, in fact, feeling. While focusing primarily on economic disparity, he makes another important point: “American voters are right to feel angry. Yet the challenge is not just to diagnose the problem but also to prescribe the right fixes and achieve them in this political environment.”

This political environment is truly toxic. Historically, successful politicians pointed toward the ways America could excel, live up to its ideals, and enhance our individual potential. In this election, those who are garnering the most coverage—on both sides of the aisle—are busy waiving proverbial pitchforks. The latest shiny objects, if you will, to incite Americans to even greater heights of anger. As Kristof points out, it’s not enough to identify the problem – how about a solution?

If, as Americans, we want better candidates and, ultimately, better leadership, then we can’t support he loudest screamer in the room without asking important questions and demanding thoughtful leadership.

Our surrogates for asking those questions should be the media. They should know the history of the candidates they cover. They should know the history of the world we live in. They should help us hold candidates and leaders accountable for both the content and the context of their statements.

That may seem more than a little Pollyannaish and even impossible. But then I think of Ruth Dayan and Raymonda Tawil and I pause because I think history is talking to us and we should listen and learn.

Photo Credit: Gutzemberg /

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